August 19, 2016

Towards People-centred and People-Oriented ASEAN

Aung Htoo

A strong ripple effect felt the world when people of the United Kingdom recently decided to leave the European Union at a nation-wide referendum. It took the world and other regional organizations by surprise.  The European Union has been considered as a role model for successful regional integration that took root 60 years ago. Someone might think similar fate could be facedin ASEAN as well.  Former Secretary-General of ASEAN, Mr. SurinPitsuwan, was quick to rebuke that it is highly unlikely.
Britain’s decision to leave the EU was mainly voted for by the elderly and those who were disenfranchised that they are not getting benefits from the European Integration. Whatever happened, Britexit  Brexist was decided by the peopleor voters and reflected the aspiration of the people.It strikes to my mind that if the European Union could be built in first instant as people-centred union and if the people believe in the benefits of integration, such thing may not be possible.
When we look back ASEAN, as a regional organization, ASEAN is also not a people-centred organization yet. The Charter of ASEAN still maintains that ASEAN is an intergovernmental organization. Therefore, ASEAN is driven by leaders and is looking forwards to new and fresh leadership. ASEAN was established by foreign ministers of founding member countries on 8th August 1967 as an Association of Southeast Asian Nations to cooperate in economic and socio-cultural fields in accordance with the Bangkok Declaration.  In 2003, ASEAN had decided to be integrated into a community. By the end of 2015, ASEAN declared itself as ASEAN Community. As any other organization, ASEAN has its own vision and mission. In 2005, ASEAN had produced ASEAN Vision 2020 which stated “ASEAN as a concert of Southeast Asian Nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies”. As a growing and dynamic regional organization, ASEAN has issued another Vision in 2015 to keep up with the changing circumstances, “ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together”, that reaffirmed ASEAN’s resolve to continue along the path of regional integration andprovide an insight as to the regional organisation’s priorities focus and goals. In its Vision 2025, the leaders had pledged to ASEAN peoples their resolve to realise a rules-based, people-oriented, people-centred ASEAN of “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”.
Before going over to the need fora people-centred organization, one should know the differences between ASEAN and the European Union. While the European Union considered itself as a “common European House”,ASEAN member countries are very diverse in nature. It has different sizes in term of population, territory or economy. It consists of different systems of economies and governments, multitude of ethnic groups and languages. The only common denominator in ASEAN is that they live in the same geographic region,“the Southeast Asia” and they accept a unique quality of“Asian Values”.Asian values embedded in the mind of Asian people can be seen as preference for social harmony, concern with socio-economic prosperity and the collective well-being of the community, loyalty and respect towards figures of authority and finally preference for collectivism and communitarianism. Therefore, ASEAN adopts the motto of “Unity in Diversity”. The approach of ASEAN is the ASEAN Way that resorts to constructive engagements, consultation, quiet diplomacy, compromise and decision by consensus. Because of the ASEAN Way of decision-making, ASEAN was criticised from time to time by others that it could only achieve the “lowest common denominator”.How ambitious a member state may be, it must value and respect the comfortability of others to accept a proposal. Members of ASEAN are similar to permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. They possess veto powers in decision making. Decision can be made only when all the members comfortably agree to. Therefore, ASEAN is often questioned for its lack of credibility, relevance, centrality and boldness.  At this time of heightened tension on the South China Sea, the criticism could be more vocal. On the other hand, one has to realize that ASEAN’s integrity, unity and credibility are firmly rested on the pertinent way of decision making by consensus. ASEAN may face the similar fate as the European Union if decisions were made bymajority and not by consensus.
Case in point is the South China Sea issue at  recently concluded 49th ASEAN Foreign Minister meeting (AMM) in Vientiane, Lao PDR. ASEAN has made a spectacular move out of a crisis based on the ASEAN consensus. After the judgement of International Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Philippines wanted to include references to the Court’s ruling in the Joint Communique. But some member states resisted. The Drafting Group could not able to overcome it. The Senior Officials could not solve it. But after repeated attempts of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers themselves in informal consultation setting, they reachedconsensus and successfully issued the Joint Communique of the 49th AMM.  This is the victory for ASEAN and the relevance of the ASEAN Way.
Another contrast between ASEAN and the Union European is that ASEAN will never agree to form as a supranational organization where member countriesgive away parts of their sovereignty to the bureaucrats similar to that of the Union European. The European Union has a secretariat of more than 7000 staff, which drafts every common positions and regulations for the member states and monitors its compliance.ASEAN member states do not allow ASEAN Secretariat to do the same. ASEAN Secretariat has a skeleton staff of about 200. ASEAN Chairmanship is on rotation basis and the Chair leads ASEAN during its chairmanship and decisions were made, reviewed and monitored collectively at respective ASEAN Summits and its ministerial or senior officials meetings. ASEAN Secretary-General and the ASEAN Secretariat are merely to support ASEAN activities and its member states.
Basically, ASEAN has worked to achieve common goals and purposes contributed by its member states to the best of their ability and capacity. The idea is that “the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts” as once Aristotle stated.   The individual efforts of the member states will contribute to the greater success of ASEAN. ASEAN is not bound by rigid rules and regulations. Because of that approach, ASEAN becomes one of the most dynamic and successful regional organizations.
When ASEAN has grown as a dynamic and credible regional organization with combined efforts of its individual member states, the European Union seems to regulate its members with equal benchmarks, common positions and regulations. When more developed countries in the EU like Germany or France could comfortably fulfil the requirements of the EU such less developed countries as Greece, Portugal or some Eastern European members have difficulties in keeping up with the pace of integration. Britain as a country which once control the quarter of the world did not even join the European Monetary System. The financial rescue package for Greece had made an initial crack in the EU. When the EU has imposed quota system to accept mass migration of refugees from the Middle East, the patience became very thin for most of the EU member states. The result of Britexistreferendum is indicative of that frustration.
ASEAN should learn from the lesson of the EU. The most important thing is that when ASEAN member states become more democratic, the ASEAN governmentsincreasingly need to fulfil the aspiration of the people. Therefore, ASEAN should be more people-oriented and people centred in the future. Looking at the future of ASEAN, it is imperative that ASEAN as an organization should inevitably be more focus on people-centred ASEAN.
The governments of the member states should take steps to transform the organization into people-centred one. The government should adopt policieson how to transform people-centred ASEAN. At the same time theyshould call for broad participation of the people into that process. For Example, as governments adopted policies on more visa free movement of people among ASEAN countries, ASEAN people must also be prepared to get involved more into people to people exchanges. Through these activities, the people of ASEAN Community could appreciate“We feeling” as ASEAN citizens.
ASEAN citizens should know more about the purposes and activities of ASEAN Community. The parliamentarians elected by the people should forge closer cooperation. The parliaments of ASEAN member states should adopt legislations in support of ASEAN Community and harmonization of laws among ASEAN countries. ASEAN countries should establish independent human rights commissions to oversee the promotion and protection of human rights in accordance with ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and other international standards and norms. ASEAN countries should mobilize and pool resources for search and rescue operations and humanitarian assistance in times of disasters. In education sector, curriculums should be harmonized and school and university certificates should be mutually recognized. ASEAN students should be given opportunity to interchange their studies across ASEAN education institutions. Inter-ASEAN trade and investments must be promoted and create a single market, single investment and tourism destination. ASEAN should ensure collectively for food and energy security as well. ASEAN must promote its diverse culture and the common identity.  Within the framework of ASEAN, farmers, workers, academia, youth, women and disable persons should take part in activities that promote ASEAN integration. Civil societies should hold the activities that promote and support ASEAN Community. These activities will surely promotethe bottom up approach which will in turn complement the current top-down approach of ASEAN Community.
In so doing, the ASEAN citizens will recognise the future potential of ASEAN Community, the benefits accrued from the integration and will not be swayed from the Community whichthey deeply cherish and involved.


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